Brian O’Connor shares favorite memories from the run to the 2021 College World Series
A key moment in UVA’s run to the 2021 College World Series came when former Cavalier linebacker Tom Burns had the team over to his house for barbecue.
OK, not just any barbecue.
More on that in a moment.
Burns, who lives in South Carolina, had reached out prior to the Columbia Regional to invite the team over for a day, and it just didn’t work out schedule-wise.
Once the ‘Hoos won the Regional, and coach Brian O’Connor made the call to keep the team in the Palmetto State after the NCAA decided to use Columbia to host the Super Regional series between UVA and Dallas Baptist, he reached back out to Burns to see if the offer still stood.
The day that Burns, who has three degrees in nuclear engineering from Virginia, put together for the team was “a difference-maker for us,” O’Connor said.
“With all the intensity and the excitement and the how competitive it is in the Regional, the day after that we won the Regional, he had us out to his home, and our guys got to throw some lines in the water, and got to have the best barbecue I’ve ever had in my life that he had catered into his home,” O’Connor said. “They got to swim, we played some basketball, some H-O-R-S-E and stuff like that, and the kids just got to relax for a late afternoon, evening, and it was awesome. Tom crushed it. It was perfect. Exactly what our guys needed, just to kind of step away from the game for a day and have a little fun.”
That was one of the memories that O’Connor will take away from the 2021 postseason run.
Among the fun highlights: how about Kyle Teel and the saga of the ill-fitting batting helmet?
I asked O’Connor if that is something he will address heading into next season.
“You know the way it is, Chris, it’s a chin strap. We’re just going to, you know, he’s a former football player, so we’re just going to get him one of those white chin straps that snaps on this side,” O’Connor said.
“Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on with that,” O’Connor said. “You know, this is sometimes one of those things, baseball is a very, very superstitious sport, as you know, and so when a player starts having success, and they put their socks on a certain way, or they use a certain bat or helmet, they don’t change.
“About halfway through the season, I was talking to KT, and I was saying, hey, Kyle, listen, can we talk to the equipment guy and maybe find a helmet that fits? Oh, no, Coach, this one. I’ve tried it. You know, I know he didn’t try it. I just know he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to change his helmet. He thought his batting average would plummet. So we’ll see what we can do moving into next year for that,” O’Connor said.
Next up: centerfielder Chris Newell, and the top button on his jersey, oft left unbuttoned.
“I’ll tell you what, if I had a body like Chris Newell, I don’t button my top button, too. Unfortunately, this guy doesn’t have it,” O’Connor said, pointing to himself as the guy who “doesn’t have it.”
“Kudos to him for being able to unbutton it, right?” O’Connor said. “I think this all centers around equipment. I mean, I need to talk to Chris Moore, our equipment guy here. He needs to get his act together a little bit. He does a great job for us. But yeah, you know, you see the personality of these guys a little bit, you know, and it’s fun. It was a fun group to coach, and I’m excited for so many of them to be back next year.”
Jerry Ratcliffe asked O’Connor to name a favorite moment from the postseason.
Strap yourself in for this one. It may take a while.
“I don’t know where to start, Jerry,” O’Connor said. “It’s impossible for me to pick, you know, to pick one of them because, gosh darn it, you go back and you think about it, everybody forgets about, we lost the first South Carolina game in the Regional, and the win over Jacksonville, they came out guns a-blazing against (Mike) Vasil and put us on our heels, right, and then, yeah, we ended up winning the game by a number of runs, but the job that Nate Savino did coming in after Vasil and kind of steadying it a little bit and giving us a chance to win, people take that win for granted.
“And then, you know, obviously the different starts (Griff) McGarry had were incredible, and what (Matt) Wyatt did, and you know, (Devin) Ortiz’s home run, just one after another, I don’t know where you stop you know. When you are facing elimination six times in the Regional and Super Regional, and you win all six, there’s going to be a lot of memories, because there’s so many different guys that step up,” O’Connor said.
“I can just continue to go around, you know, all the position players that played and the different pitchers, and it’s amazing how I can reflect and think about the job Logan Michaels did, you know, sure the home run on Father’s Day was great, but the fact that that guy’s lining up every day behind the plate and delivering not only great defense but clutch hits, you know. I think about the home runs and the big hits Jake Gelof had in the in the in the Regional. I think about Max Cotier, some of the defense he played, and Nic Kent, the plays that he made in the College World Series and the big hits he had. And the final three weeks, Jake Gelof, Jerry, hands down, played his best baseball of the year the final three weeks of the season. I mean, that guy was on fire in Omaha, and he stepped forward.
“And the clutch hits and home runs (Alex) Tappen had, and the emergence of Chris Newell, the final three weeks of the season was the best he had, not only the defense he played, the big plays he made, but the big hits and the home runs that he had. And I mean, obviously Kyle Teel, that grand slam against Dallas Baptist, that’ll rank up there for me as one of my top 10 top moments in my career in coaching. And you just think about Ortiz’s production in the Regional, the Super Regional.
“So I just named every position player and different moments that they stepped up. There wasn’t one of them that laid an egg, you know, at different points it took all of them, you know. (Andrew) Abbott, McGarry and Vasil and Savino and what Wyatt did out of the pen, and (Zach) Messinger and (Kyle) Witten, and, you know, the three-inning performance that (Stephen) Schoch had.
“I mean, and listen, I know he’s disappointed in what happened to Mississippi State game, but you know what, tip my hat to Tyler Allen, you’ve still got to hit it. Right? I mean, you know, like I told the team after the Mississippi State game, you have a choice individually, we have a choice as a group, to decide how are we going to remember this game. I implore you to not think of it as we lost the game. Mississippi State won the game, they hit two home runs in an inning. It’s not like we were out there walking a bunch of guys and hitting a bunch of guys. They got hits, you know, they got a two-run home run, then I bring in Messinger, and Messinger on a clean slate, he’s done the job all year for us. They get two hits off of him, you know, then the guy hits a three-run home run. And then they tack on another another run. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we lost the game. Mississippi State won the game, right, they’re proving the kind of team they had.”
Indeed, Mississippi State would go on to win the whole shebang, upsetting favored Vanderbilt in a three-game championship series, knocking projected first-round draft pick Kumar Rocker in the process.
“I don’t know, there’s just so many of them, Jerry,” O’Connor said. “When when the film writers wrote the film for ‘1186 to Omaha’ in ’15, and that time we spent to go back and reflect, and we had these all these brainstorming sessions and thought about, well, what about when this happened, this happened. I am making a promise to myself that, throughout this summer, I’m going to have my voice recorder on my phone, and I’m going to go back and record the different memories of what this team did, because there was so many of them, there were so many little things that happened that allowed it the big things to happened, that I just don’t want to forget them. When this team gets together 20 years down the road and has a reunion for this College World Series team, I want to be able to be able to talk about, remember when this happened?”
Story by Chris Graham